NATO on Russia's border: a check, not a threat

NATO's plan for long-term rotation of troops in its eastern states is well tailored as a deterrence and not a provocation to Russia. The alliance's strategic patience with Putin reflects not a desire for victory but hopes for a nonaggressive Russia.

AP Photo
In this June 3 photo, President Obama and Poland's President Bronislaw Komorowski meet after visiting US and Polish troops at an event featuring four F-16 fighter jets, two American and two Polish, as part of multinational military exercises, in Warsaw, Poland.

If the simmering Ukraine-Russia war were simply a zero-sum game, Russia would now be losing another point. At a meeting next week, NATO is expected to back a plan to move its forces very close to the Russian border in Eastern Europe.

This deployment of NATO troops, which will be done on a rotational basis, would come after previous “losses” for Russia: the exit of a pro-Moscow leader in Kiev, economic sanctions by the West, and a Ukraine now on its way to joining the European Union and not a union with Russia. Moscow has also felt isolated after its missiles were used by Ukrainian separatists to down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

And what has Russia gotten so far? The small Crimean Peninsula. And, oh yes, President Vladimir Putin has boosted his popularity at home.

Yet this tally of wins and losses misses the point. The West does not want to defeat Moscow on a geopolitical chessboard. And NATO’s plan for rotating forces into the member states of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland shows why.

As during the cold war with the Soviet Union, NATO simply wants to contain Russian aggression until that country gets over its strategic fears and stops trying to expand its borders or adversely influencing its vulnerable neighbors, especially those with minority Russian-speaking populations.

Russia had already carved out territory from Moldova and Georgia before its semi-covert military aggression in Ukraine. Now NATO simply wants to say “Enough!”

“The bottom line is you will in the future see a more visible NATO presence in the east,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the alliance’s secretary-general, told reporters.

The security organization does not plan permanent bases but will build “reception facilities” to allow long-term deployments of just enough forces for defensive, not offensive, purposes. This is part of a compromise among NATO members to avoid feeding Moscow’s fears while still offering a credible deterrence to the kind of Russian intrusion seen in Ukraine. 

Under Article 5 of NATO, each member is obligated to defend other members’ territory. And in a 1997 agreement, NATO and (pre-Putin) Russia pledged not to treat the other as an adversary.

Since March, as the crisis in Ukraine grew, American forces have been visiting the eastern NATO members. But now Europe will add its forces, and on a more long-term basis.

NATO’s strength for more than 70 years has been its ability to maintain a collective defense without escalating military tensions with Moscow. This entails a strategic patience as Russia battles its historical tendencies toward totalitarianism and imperial aspirations.

NATO’s wise posture has allowed it to attract more members after the cold war. Even Finland, which has Europe’s longest border with Russia, is now tempted to join. “We have seen enough of the justice of the strong on this continent,” said Prime Minister Alexander Stubb.

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